My year in translation: April

We are two weeks into lockdown and I have the sense that work is slowing down around me, although for the time being I have plenty to keep me busy. For this month, I have some edits to incorporate, two more paid samples to translate, a romantic modernist poem to produce, two short stories for young readers as part of an academic project comparing the reception of bowdlerized versus “warts and all” versions of the same text, various bits and pieces for regular clients – and my big corporate copywriting job.

I’m slightly worried about immersing myself in project management and admin, given both the general circumstances (there is no end in sight for Covid19) and my own personal situation. I am aware of my ambivalence not just towards the nitty-gritty of it all (file management, endless emails, budgets and schedules) but, perhaps more than that, towards what it says about me. I am actually quite good at this activity that also makes me feel anxious and, occasionally, bored. I am like an anarchist with a guilty yearning to be a traffic warden.

As the project gets going, though, I remember why I was drawn to it. I put together a small team – a close friend and colleague who lives round the corner, and two fine Spanish translators, neither of whom I have ever met in person. I will split the English copywriting with my friend and we will review and edit one another’s work. This friend is self-taught and works almost exclusively for one client, a news service. As far as the wider translation community is concerned, he might as well not exist. And yet he is one of the very best translators I know. By contrast, last year, I did a line-by-line comparison of the first chapter of a high-profile translation (a literary novel that was also a bestseller). It was more or less readable but closer inspection revealed a mixture of clumsiness, omissions and a sprinkling of basic errors. Needless to say, it was the work of a highly-regarded translator. (One reviewer acerbically noted that the book had found the translator it deserved, although I’m not sure that any book deserves to be badly translated.) This is one of the supremely odd effects of the public/private nature of translation. It’s as if you could go to the Nou Camp to see Messi play, only to find that he is not just having an off-day but is simply not very good. And then you wander down to the local park to watch a Sunday league game and realize that the bald guy in midfield is as good as anyone on the Barcelona team (and certainly streets ahead of that overrated Argentinian bloke).

Lockdown creates a strange rhythm, heightening the polarization of my alternate weeks of being with and without my kids. When I am on my own, I have limited opportunities to leave the flat. I bring one of my dogs to the bachelor pad in order to have an excuse to break the curfew, I drink coffee on the balcony and beer on the roof. And I work. When I am with the kids, lockdown softens. I am back in the family flat, I have two dogs, plenty of shopping expeditions and, best of all, the company of my children (who are studying from home). Work is lower on my list of priorities.

This week I am going through the copy editor’s changes, suggestions and queries on the manuscript of Crocodile Tears, the Uruguayan thriller I finished translating in January. Translators seem to have mixed feelings about being edited. I don’t know if this reflects bad experiences, insecurities or their attachment to the illusion of control and the artistic endeavour as individual pursuit. I always enjoy being edited, I pride myself on the fact, even. Although it occurs to me that perhaps it is not such a virtue, that my enjoyment may draw on a certain arrogance or even reflect a deep-seated need for attention (satisfied, in this case, through being the target of copious tracked changes and extensive comments in Microsoft Word). Whatever the motive, the edits on Crocodile Tears are a pleasure to go through. Bitter Lemon Press have assigned Sarah Terry to edit the manuscript. I used to be a copy editor myself. I was bad enough that I stopped doing it. But not so bad that I can’t recognize the work of someone who is really good. Reassuringly, there are very few errors in my translation as such, just lots of points where the editor has spotted opportunities for improvement or identified possible snags.

I take most of them on board either directly, by incorporating the editor’s suggestion, or indirectly, by making some other adjustment instead. Sometimes I slice through the Gordian knot and just delete whatever word is causing the problem. It’s important to be able to let go of something in the source text if the price of keeping it is too high.

In addition to providing the chance to carry on improving the text (when I’d exhausted my capacity to improve it on my own), the editing process is really the first external read of my translation. It’s like having a long, rambling conversation about my work with an intelligent, attentive reader.

This month’s paid samples, again with that all-important public funding, are from two non-fiction titles, a category for which I much prefer the Spanish term ensayo, although I’m always slightly disconcerted when such books with a strong personal narrative are referred to as novelas, as they occasionally are. (Have I misunderstood the Spanish terms or has the reviewer not actually read the book? I am never quite sure.) I am translating the first chapter of El analista, Txema Guijarro’s inside account of the political, legal and media storm that surrounded the Snowden and Assange affairs. And I’m also working on an excerpt from El director, David Jiménez’s account of his time as editor-in-chief of Spain’s El mundo newspaper, which has since descended into the gutter and abandoned any pretence of serious journalism.

I enjoy the way that translating non-fiction requires a constant negotiation between the world of the text and the ‘real’ world outside it. How much adjustment – addition, omission, explanation – does the translator need to provide to make the book work for the target audience? Making those adjustments in an unobtrusive but effective manner requires a lot of craft, and is every bit as challenging as translating literary fiction or drama.

I’m also enjoying the stylistic demands of this particular text. The author, Jiménez, was a foreign correspondent who was unexpectedly appointed editor-in-chief of the paper, the owners presumably hoping that his political naivete would make him easy to manipulate while also providing them with cover for their plans. The style, like a lot of the best journalism, draws its energy from treading the delicate line between muscular reportage and cliché. When translating, I strive to do the same. If I obey George Orwell’s dictum (“Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in  print”), I will flatten the text and destroy the synergy between subject matter and style. If I go too far in the other direction, reaching for fixed phrases and common collocations at every opportunity, I will produce a deadening caricature of the original.

El despacho del director de El Mundo había sido en todo ese tiempo uno de los mayores centros de influencia del país, cortejado por reyes y jueces, ministros y celebridades, escritores y cantantes, caciques y conseguidores.

Here, for decoding purposes, is the DeepL machine translation:

The office of the director of El Mundo had been in all that time one of the biggest centres of influence in the country, courted by kings and judges, ministers and celebrities, writers and singers, chiefs and procurers.

And here’s my take on it:

Throughout that time, the office of El Mundo’s editor-in-chief had been one of the country’s nerve centres, a place visited by kings and judges, ministers and celebrities, writers and singers, party bosses and men in grey suits.

El país vivía, además, el momento de mayor tensión política desde la transición a la democracia, con una economía herida, una elite que se aferraba atemorizada a sus privilegios, nuevos partidos que amenazaban el orden establecido y unos medios de comunicación en su mayoría arrodillados ante el poder, que había aprovechado nuestra fragilidad para organizar el mayor y más coordinado ataque contra la libertad de prensa desde el final de la dictadura del general Franco.

Again, the DeepL machine translation version:

The country was also experiencing the greatest political tension since the transition to democracy, with a wounded economy, an elite that clung to its privileges in fear, new parties that threatened the established order and a media that was mostly on its knees in the face of power, which had taken advantage of our fragility to organise the biggest and most coordinated attack on the freedom of the press since the end of General Franco’s dictatorship.

And my translation:

To make matters worse, Spain was in the throes of its greatest political crisis since the transition to democracy in the late 1970s. The economy was floundering, the elite were clinging grimly to their privileges, new parties were threatening the established order – and most of the media were pandering to those in power, who had seized upon the sector’s weakness to launch the largest, most coordinated assault on press freedom since the death of General Franco.

Like a lot of people, I have a love–hate relationship with social media. I’ve pulled back my presence on Facebook, in particular. However, I still enjoy the way that Twitter, at its best, provides a platform for discussing translation, a place where I can share bite-sized examples of my work, ask for help, connect with colleagues. Under lockdown, I’m very much aware that Twitter is a double-edged sword. It’s a vital window onto the outside world, a place where I can have conversations on days when, perhaps, I won’t meet anyone in person. It is also, though, an unwelcome source of news and rumour and speculation, all of which overloads me and makes me feel anxious.

Doomscrolling apart, another thing I like about Twitter is that it’s a place where Spanish and English merge, and I often combine the two languages in the same tweet or thread, particularly when I’m tweeting about my work. It’s always fun to write about non-obvious translations and I really enjoy engaging with both translators and non-translators. This month, I publish a long thread on the way Spanish daily usage is peppered with (not particularly rude) references to genitalia, showing both literal and pragmatic translations.

The thread goes viral, with 12,000 likes and well over a million views. I have also picked up around 1,000 new followers. Apparently there is an audience out there keen for as much bilingual smut as they can find.

My year in translation: March

The month gets off to a good start. A longstanding client has confirmed that a big project will be going ahead. The job involves producing bilingual content for a section of the corporate website, a kind of online museum. It will be a bit different from my usual work. I will be copywriting into English from a Spanish brief, and coordinating the rest of the project: translation of English copy back into Spanish, editing in both languages, terminology etc. I’m looking forward to the variety, and to putting together a team of colleagues. And it provides me with a degree of security for the rest of the year. After a little discussion, I agree a frankly unrealistic deadline, fairly confident that the bottlenecks will be at their end rather than mine.

Moomin and Ronia on the roof

On 13 March we get the news we have all been dreading, expecting and perhaps hoping for. As the numbers of cases and deaths rise, Spain has declared a state of emergency in an attempt to curb the spread of Covid19. Although the epicentres are in Madrid, Barcelona and the Basque Country, a lockdown has been imposed in Andalusia too. My own feeling, I confess, is one of relief. This suspension of normality is strangely welcome. My own normality was suspended last summer when my wife and I separated. For the last nine months I’ve been living a divided existence: half of the time in the family home with my kids and my dogs, the other half unrooted, back in Scotland or in a rented flat nearby. I’m not sure what I’m doing here, in my ex-wife’s home town. I need to make plans for the future but I am still clinging to the past. Our flat has become the setting for a peculiar French farce of modern family life. Once a week I exit stage left when my ex arrives; a week later the process is repeated in reverse to mark my return. This is not so much co-parenting as part-time single parenting. I’m at my best when I’m with my kids: I feel grounded, accompanied, I know who I am, I have a purpose. But the solo periods are more difficult. I am too distraught to enjoy my freedom, a heartbroken bachelor rattling around in his pad, the space filled with the lustrous green of cheap houseplants from Lidl, my time filled with translation. Thankfully, I can translate in almost any emotional state. It is, if not therapy, then at least a soothing balm.

The suspension of time, this feeling of the rest of the world coming into synch with my own private catastrophe, has an unexpected effect. I am momentarily energized. During the first week of lockdown, I write a short story. In Spanish. The choice of language is pragmatic. My playwright friends are all writing short pandemic-themed dramatic monologues – in Catalan or Spanish – and I want to join in. But writing in this language – which is not “mine” – is constraining and thus, paradoxically, liberating. I am restricted, I have less range, a smaller vocabulary, less control over different registers, less ability to step outside of my own idiolect into the wider language beyond. I find myself in a linguistic lockdown, essential purchases and dog-walking only, a simplicity that allows my writing to flow.

I finish the piece and share it with my colleagues. Normally, I channel their writing from Spanish into English: they write, I translate. Today, I have broken the rules. I am writing, not translating. And I am doing it in Spanish, not English. In translation, I reveal very little of myself. In writing, I can reveal as much as I want.

Writing in Spanish, though, throws up another problem. Most of my writing is not published in the traditional sense. I post it on my website and then share it via social media or email. This is a piece I would normally share with friends and family but by writing in Spanish I have created a barrier. And so I must become a translator once again.

Near the start of the piece, my son jokes about how we should deal with people who have brought the virus to Cadiz from Madrid as they flee to their second homes on the coast:

Si escuchas a alguien decir ‘tronco’ por la calle, mátalo ya, quillo.

[= If you hear someone say tronco when you’re out and about, just kill them, quillo]

Quillo is short for chiquillo and is a typical Cadiz term, equivalent, roughly, to ‘mate’ in English. Tronco is a Madrid alternative, somewhat old-fashioned now, the kind of word you might hear on a TV drama set in the Spanish capital in the 1990s.

How do I translate this shibboleth test into English? I can’t leave the words in Spanish but nor can I replace them with English equivalents. In the end, I settle for a non-lexical version:

If you see someone in a Real Madrid top, just kill them.

It’s a clever solution, I think, but I can’t help recognizing that something – rather a lot, in fact – has been lost. My little story is, among other things, about a relationship to place and to language, about how identity changes but is always local. Not much of this is captured by the Real Madrid shirt.

There is more loss to come. Halfway through the story, I have come back from the newly cordoned off beach, my morning dog-walk frustrated, and decide to take the dogs up onto the roof to give them some exercise. I worry about keeping the animals under control as I make my way upstairs with the laundry, a cup of coffee and some home baking:

The bag is too big, the coffee will spill, the dogs will go crazy on the stairs.

But here, too, something has gone astray. In the original I wrote not that the dogs would “go crazy” (volverse locas) but rather, se van a desmadrar. Literally, they will become unmothered. There is no such word as “unmother” in English, which is, no doubt, one of the reasons why I like it so much in Spanish, its lack of a direct equivalent making it more vivid, more salient, a fresh image for my non-native mind. It is not, though, the dogs who are in danger of becoming unmothered but rather my children, who have been alternately unmothered and unfathered on a weekly basis for the best part of a year and for the foreseeable future.

Of the many silly things that are said about translation, perhaps the silliest of all is the insistence that nothing is untranslatable, the reluctance to acknowledge the inevitability of loss. But translation, like life, is, among other things, a process of managing loss. Sometimes, often, that loss may feel negligible or may simply be outweighed by what we add. When I translate a rambling, verbose piece of academic prose into clean, flowing English, I am confident that my version is better than the original, that I have cast the author in a better light than, perhaps, he deserves, that there is little loss and much gain.

Sometimes, I prefer to think less in terms of loss and gain than of change. I refuse on principle to produce ‘literal’ translations of stage plays. My theatre translations always invoke a version of the play, a production that takes place inside my head as I translate. I do whatever is necessary to make that work, to give the characters their voices, to mark the rhythms of the drama, to exploit the potential offered by the target language. There is loss here too, to be sure, but so much more change and transformation that I don’t need to dwell on it.

In other cases, more perhaps than we care to admit, it is the loss that dominates, at least during the process of translation. Maybe, after it is done, we will be able to look back, to appreciate the necessity of change, the inevitability of loss, to appreciate, even, the silver lining of those little gains and the new thing that has been created.

The second half of March brings news of the postponement of a couple of projects. One of these is a regular report on the state of the European Union. The client has already invested in the writing stage; translation is a small part of the overall budget and without it everything else will have been a waste of time and money. I’m fairly confident that this job will resurface later in the year; perhaps, if I’m lucky, it will coincide with a quiet spell. I’m more disappointed about the other project. It was a comic about women scientists, my first full-length comic translation, my first job for a new client. For the moment it has been put on hold but I suspect this job won’t resurface. It’s hard not to worry about the pandemic’s likely impact on work – and I feel more grateful than ever for that large copywriting project.

At the end of March, I have a reading of my translation of Jauría (the documentary drama I translated in January about the Manada gang rape case). The reading takes place under the auspices of Out of the Wings, a London-based collective for theatre translators working between Spanish and Portuguese and English.

Screenshot of Out of the Wings Zoom reading of Jauría

Out of the Wings member, William Gregory, deserves the credit (or the blame!) for getting me involved in theatre translation. It’s the least lucrative but most enjoyable part of what I do and, for the moment, I am trying to create a portfolio of work and use that to build up a network of contacts in the hope that, at some point, my addiction to translating dialogue will start to pay for itself.

The reading was originally due to take place in London but has now shifted online. The script is read, via Zoom, by a cast of professional actors, and the reading is followed by a discussion by the members of the collective and anyone else who wants to attend. Perhaps surprisingly, for me the main benefit of participating in a reading such as this is not the opportunity to revise my translation in the wake of hearing it performed. I make few if any changes at this stage; at most, the odd minor infelicity that has slipped through. I’m perfectly happy, though, for directors and actors to make whatever changes they deem necessary. Each line of translated dialogue ceases to be work in progress when I settle on a version I like. For some lines, most even, that happens at draft one; for others, it takes a little longer. But I think that this letting go is, really, a recognition of the collaborative nature of translation. The collaboration is asynchronous but it is essential to the process. What else is a translation but a collaboration between translator and author, regardless of whether the author has any direct involvement (answering queries or resolving doubts) or is even still alive?

In theatre, there is an acceptance that the finished script (whether translated or not) is merely the basis for a further collaboration, between director and actors, which has as its result a performance on the stage, in which the collaboration occurs between actors and audience.

The collaboration is less immediately apparent in written translation – there are no collective spaces to parallel the rehearsal room and the stage. But it is still there: between the translator and the author; with the involvement of publishers, agents, editors and proofreaders; and, finally, between all of these and the reader. I wonder if the translator’s (or the author’s) frequent reluctance to let go of a final text is part of a denial of this collaboration, an insistence that they and they alone have created the text, a delusion of control over how the text will be experienced and, hopefully, enjoyed.

La azotea (original version)

Up on the Roof (English translation)

A Wedding to Die For (Pablo Canosales)

In A Wedding to Die For (La boda de tus muertos) by Andalusian playwright Pablo Canosales, the López family – the parents Jesús and Sofía, and their two children Mari Tere and Josete – attend the wedding reception of the oldest of the three children, Pablo.

Time stands still – as they drive towards the reception through the baking countryside, as they arrive, are seated humiliatingly at the back of the room, are treated to the bizarre ‘service’ of their dedicated waiter, Aurelio, it is always 7 o’clock.

The action moves from tragedy to farce to comedy, and back again. And one thing is clear. This family is held together not by love but by resentment and disappointment and loathing. Can they break free? What will happen if they do?

Poster for “La boda de tus muertos”, Pablo Canosales, Teatros Luchana

MARI TERE: Think. You’re the one who suggested the game. You must have something to say.

Pause. Abstraction. Silence. Wind. A strong wind engulfs SOFÍA. A mother who flies with the wind. The wind takes possession of her. She takes possession of the wind. A rising apocalypse.

SOFÍA: I like the bride. I mean, she doesn’t look so great but, well, she’s still the bride. And we always say the bride looks beautiful. Even if it’s a lie. Even if she’s stealing your son forever. And I like my Pablo; he’s so handsome. But then he’s handsome whatever he wears, and even more so dressed as the groom. And even though we’re a long way away, I like to see him smiling with joy like only he does. Although I keep losing sight of him, with all these people in the way. I also like the dress the bride’s mother is wearing. If it’s uglier than mine, I laugh. But if it’s prettier, I get really pissed off. I can’t help it.

The wedding ceremony. When people read at the altar. The priest with his goblet of wine. I like the bit when he says: “Speak now or forever hold your peace.” There’s always the possibility that somebody will ruin the moment. The organ. The photographer. People crying. People singing. The food. What is it with food at weddings? It never ends. The decorations. They’re so important. Everybody loves them. And I like asking people, “How are you? How are you? How are you?”

And explaining what it was like, organizing all of this, even though I haven’t organized anything. But I would like to have done it for my son. And I like the music at weddings. Music that allows you to let yourself go, even if it’s only on the inside. And the centrepieces. Real flowers. I don’t like the plastic ones, they look cheap, you can tell they’re plastic. And the tableware, which doesn’t seem so important and people don’t think about it, but it is important because you eat your food from it. It has to be white. And pretty. And simple.

I like simple weddings. And I like elaborate ones. I like weddings. I like all kinds of weddings! Because they’re all happy. Or they should be. And I like prawns. There have to be lots of prawns. Local, not imported. And a free bar. There has to be a free bar. For the young folks, above all, but for the older ones too. I like the guests. They make me feel good. The guests should be happy. More than a hundred but less than five hundred. With people smiling, even if they don’t want to or they can’t. I like that too. Because weddings are for smiling.

Envelopes with money. Envelopes without money. Envelopes with the name of the person who’s given it written on them. And envelopes with no name. Full of intrigue. And disappointment. And disaster. It doesn’t matter. If you can at least cover the costs. Agreeing among friends how much money to give to the happy couple. I like the way, the more money you give, the more love it seems to show.

Stag nights and hen parties. I like people losing control at stag nights and hen parties. The money from the wedding paying for the honeymoon. The smokers’ area. The cigars. I don’t like cigars but the smell of cigar smoke at a wedding makes me happy. Who knows why? Even though I don’t smoke. The condom machines in the bathrooms. The way the floor ends up all slippy and slidy.

Impossible high heels. Uncomfortable dresses. People changing their shoes halfway through. Perfume. Wedding make-up and wedding hair-dos. Flamboyant ties and ridiculous bow-ties. The crazy hairstyles at weddings. Layers and layers of make-up at weddings. People getting all dolled up to go to weddings. People getting drunk at weddings. People eating things at weddings that they’d never eat at home. People who say they go hungry at weddings.

People dancing without a care in the world at weddings. People dancing on their own at weddings. People complaining at weddings. People who do lines of coke at weddings. People who go crazy at weddings. People who fight and swear at weddings. The lovers of the bride and the groom at weddings.

People feeling each other up beneath the table at a wedding. Cheating on somebody at a wedding. The bride’s garter, I know it’s tacky, but I like it. The expensive bouquet that gets thrown in the air so that four tarts can fight over it without a scrap of dignity. The bloody kids running all over the place, knocking the waiters over and ruining everything.

The stupid stains on everyone’s wedding clothes. People who come to the wedding because they can’t get out of it. I like it when the wedding invitation doesn’t feel like an obligation. People who think they’re better than you at weddings. People you don’t know at weddings. Those people? Why the hell are they here, anywhere? The relatives who have to come to the wedding even though you don’t speak to them. I love the gossip at weddings. People with their mouths full who spit on you when they talk at weddings. People who shout at weddings. The sad single people at weddings. The divorcees at weddings. The virgins at weddings. The widows and widowers at weddings. The wife-beaters who pretend they’re nice at weddings. The ones who have filthy sex in the bathrooms at weddings. The karaoke at weddings. If only there was a karaoke with an infinite selection of songs so we could all drown in music.

Ah! There should be a photographer at every table at this wedding. I’d love that. I’d go mad! Mad! If there was a photographer at every single table and he could capture every moment of happiness at this wedding! Are you listening to me? Every single moment of happiness! Just the happy moments! Here! I wish there was a photographer here! Right here. Next to me. (She sighs) But I’d need a different family for that.

Silence.

MARI TERE: Can we change the game?

JESÚS: Please! Let’s change the game and maybe that way your mother will stop talking shit.

Lapland (Marc Angelet and Cristina Clemente)

Lapland is a play about truth and lies, knowledge and illusion, home and exile, identity and loss, innocence and maturity.

The action takes place on Christmas Eve. Monica and Ramón, and their son, Pablo, have travelled from Spain to spend the holidays with Monica´s sister, Nuria, her Finnish husband, Olavi, and their daughter, Ana. They want to give Pablo the best Christmas possible, in the land of Santa Claus.

There is only one problem: Ana has just informed Pablo that Father Christmas doesn’t exist.

As the evening develops, the characters struggle to find a way through the clash of cultures, their shared histories, the lies they have told each other – and the lies they have told themselves.

Father Christmas

RAMÓN: Ana didn’t just tell him Father Christmas doesn’t exist; she also gave him evidence. The number of children in the world, the time it would take him to visit each house… She proved it was scientifically impossible for him to reach everyone. And she told him that the man who was going to bring the presents tonight wasn’t Father Christmas but her neighbour Toivo in disguise.

MONICA: Christ, what a brat!

RAMÓN: Basically, we’re screwed.

MONICA: We’ve got to find a way to save it!

OLAVI: But what is it that you want to save?

MONICA: My son’s childhood!

OLAVI: Do you really think it’s so important?

MONICA: JESUS FUCKING CHRIST! I HAD KIDS SO THAT I COULD CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS, FOR FUCK’S SAKE!

OLAVI: See how you shout when it’s not necessary?

MONICA: It certainly is bloody necessary, Olavi! Pablo is only five! There was no need for him to find out yet. I want him to carry on feeling that tingle of excitement I used to get on Christmas Day, a feeling I hadn’t had again until he was born! I want him to believe there’s a little bit of magic in this world of ours. Yes: magic. That just because you can’t see something, can’t touch it…

Lapland was originally written in Catalan by Marc Angelet and Cristina Clemente. The translation was based on the authors’ own Spanish version of the text. It is promoted by Hause & Richman.

My year in translation: February

As a literary translator from Spanish, I often cast envious glances at colleagues working from northern European languages. The Scandinavians, in particular, seem to provide generous funding not only of samples but also, if rumour is to be believed, of whole books. It’s always been hard to imagine Spain providing public funding of that sort but this year, in anticipation of Spain being guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2021, that is exactly what has happened. The Spanish Ministry of Culture, through Acción Cultural Española, is funding the translation of promotional samples and complete works. As a result, I have a little slew of paid samples to translate in February, with more, hopefully, to follow later in the year.

Madrid metro map, 2020

I have occasionally seen translators declare that you should only translate a text if you have fallen in love with it. The politically engaged version of this is the styling of translation as an act of resistance, translations as a means of changing the world. I certainly wouldn’t complain if I could make a living from either of these approaches (or, even better, both at once) but realism dictates that I work primarily on commission and that I only turn down work if I really think I am incapable of doing it justice. I’m not complaining. A text doesn’t have to be earth-shattering (or world-changing) to be enjoyable to translate. The real intrinsic pleasure of translation, for me, comes from the process of grappling with words and phrase and sentences, trying to capture meanings, do justice to voice and style, create something that has integrity.

The first sample I’ve been asked to translate is from Tres maneras de inducir un coma, by Alba Carballal. It’s a mix of social satire and surreal dark comedy, in the long Spanish tradition of the picaresque and the esperpéntico, which translates more or less (but not quite) as “the grotesque”. I actually read this book for pleasure last year, which feels like a good sign, and I get huge pleasure from translating snatches of dialogue like the following:

Y encima tú, con todo tu coño, no contenta con quedar con un desconocido del que sólo sabes que es un rarito que te cagas, vas y le cuentas el plan.

According to DeepL machine translation:

And on top of that, you, with all your pussy, are not content to meet a stranger who you only know is a weirdo you shit on, you go and tell him the plan.

Don’t give up the day job, darlings!

And in my version:

And there you are, Jesus fucking Christ! You meet up with some total stranger – the only thing you know about him for sure is that he’s as weird as hell – and you go and tell him the whole plan.

Next up is El sueño de la razón, the new literary thriller by Berna González Harbour. Like Tres maneras… it’s set in Madrid, and it’s an extra bonus to be able to immerse myself in the city as I work, trawling Google, dredging up my own memories from the year I spent there when I first came to Spain, merging with more recent visits.

El Manzanares era un río cutre y escaso en medio del secarral castellano, contaba Ruiz, nada que ver con el Támesis o el Sena, pero tenía sus muertos. Cada año aparecía alguno y no precisamente ahogado, porque no había profundidad suficiente, sino en trozos, golpeado o acuchillado y arrojado al pasto de juncos y mosquitos. Los suicidios y asesinatos podían no ser efectivos en el río, pero seguían teniendo una épica irresistible para los chapuzas. Incluso hubo un serbio troceado en Thermomix, hacía ya algunos años.

The Manzanares was a meagre river, trickling across the dry Castilian plain, María was saying, nothing like the Thames or the Seine, but it had its dead. Every year, a few of them would show up, and they hadn’t exactly drowned because the water wasn’t deep enough for that. Instead, they appeared – beaten or stabbed, dismembered and left to rot among the reeds and the mosquitoes. The river might not offer the most effective means of committing suicide or murder but it remained irresistibly attractive to cack-handed assassins. There had even been a Serb chopped up in a food processor, a few years back.

The third sample is from Las gafas negras de Amparito Conejo, a novella by Argentinian writer, Guillermo Roz, with wonderful illustrations by Oscar Grillo. The worldly teenage narrator recounts the story of a murder in which everyone, including her, is a potential suspect.

Los asesinos, en este tipo de acontecimientos, no se pierden ninguna escena del teatro general del dolor, porque gozan más del camuflaje posterior que del momento mismo en el que hunden sus dagas. Como en el sexo, dicen los que saben, el momento de mayor satisfacción se consigue al final. No obstante, esa gloria resulta tan breve que se hace necesario reincidir.

The murderer, in such situations, is careful to capture every scene of this theatre of pain, deriving more pleasure from his subsequent concealment than from the instant at which he plunges his dagger into his hapless victim. As with sex, or so I am led to believe, the moment of greatest satisfaction arrives at the end. However, this triumph is so fleeting that the criminal is forced to reoffend.

After the samples, my next assignment is a publisher’s catalogue. What is it with publishers? Everything is always so urgent. The Frankfurt Book Fair is mentioned, as if the very words have magical time-bending properties. (“That’s in October,” I think to myself.) Clients never say, “Look, we cocked up and forgot to include the translation stage in the schedule. We’re idiots. Please help us!” I agree to a tight deadline and get to work.

Book marketing material is particularly challenging. There are always cultural adjustments. The flowery quotation from a household name (unknown abroad) has to be completely rewritten if its author is not to sound both terminally pretentious and clinically insane. Notions of what is and isn’t relevant seem to vary wildly. Spanish blurbs are surprisingly keen to tell you that the novelist once attended a weekend touch-typing course in Cuenca. This particular catalogue contains an alarming number of self-help titles by Argentinians whose main claim to fame appears to be that they have a moderate number of Instagram followers.

There is another reason why these blurbs are so hard to translate. All texts, to a greater or lesser degree, invoke a world beyond the text. Each 300-word blurb has, as its hinterland, an entire book. I can’t read the books, obviously (I have to get through a couple of blurbs an hour to hit my deadline – and my financial target). But I do have to imagine what the book might be like, draw on that for my translation, then forget it all and start over again for the next blurb. Twice an hour. I have 40 blurbs to translate in total. It’s challenging, satisfying, exhausting. I feel as if I am trapped in some bizarre Borgesian storeroom of imaginary books. Amid all the self-help, the comprehensive guide to the perfect asado (Argentinian BBQ) starts to exert its appeal. Even though I’m a vegetarian.

Taken together, the catalogue and the samples are a reminder that publishing is very much a “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” industry. Partly because they can get books on the cheap: the risk is taken by the author (who invests time that probably won’t be repaid). And partly because it’s hard to predict which books will succeed and fail. (The Harry Potter series was rejected 12 times, for example.) That knowledge, of course, doesn’t make it feel any better when you’ve produced your very best work, poured heart and soul into a book, then had to sit and watch as the publisher does precisely nothing to promote it…

My final assignment for the month is the annual activity report for a health NGO. Translators are always told to specialize, and it’s generally sound advice. You’ll get better and faster, will be better placed to build good relationships with clients, will command higher rates. But there’s much to be said for generalism, too. I enjoy variety. I love researching and learning about – and then forgetting – new subjects: an amnesiac Renaissance man. I enjoy switching between registers, adapting to the needs of different audiences. This text, anyway, defies easy classification. The projects encompass primary health care in Ecuador, social projects in Spain, and cutting-edge immunology research. The scope of the report includes the foundation’s partnership programmes in the developing world, but also finance and management structures at head office in Spain. In other words, it’s a mix of health, finance and social affairs. I research chagas disease, the demographics of Papua New Guinea, the applications of convalescent plasma, and homework clubs in Murcia. I make the rookie mistake of doing a Google search for filarial lymphoedema without hiding behind a pillow. Some things, once seen, cannot easily be unseen. Despite my minor psychological trauma, the job is an interesting one and, perhaps, after all, even represents my own small contribution to making the world a better place.

My year in translation: January

My translation year begins with Jauría, Jordi Casanovas’s verbatim drama fashioned from the statements of the victim and perpetrators of the Pamplona gang rape case that shook Spain in 2016. Although not graphic, it is nevertheless harrowing to translate, with the text offering a claustrophobic insight into the way a group of peers normalized their violent misogyny, a normalization that was mirrored in the legal system and in wider Spanish society. I produce my first draft in a strange, distanced state, protecting myself from the traumatic potential of the text. I am a little wary when I embark on the second draft – will my disengagement show through in the translation? – but the translation is fundamentally sound.

While I worked on it, I was focused mostly on how to deal with the source script, which consists of pieces of verbatim text, taken from statements, court testimony and WhatsApp conversations. Transcribed dialogue is always strange, full of repetitions, false starts, grammatical slips, incoherence. There’s no easy way to reproduce this in translation – I’d argue it’s neither possible nor desirable – and what I aim for instead is something highly naturalistic but also, perhaps, more self-consciously ‘voicey’ than the original. I don’t think it makes much sense to talk of verbatim drama in translation. Better to accept, embrace even, the necessary transformation.

En ese momento estaba totalmente en shock, no sabía qué hacer, sólo quería que pasara y cerré los ojos para no enterarme de nada y que todo pasara rápido.

At that point, I was completely in shock, I didn’t know what to do, I just wanted it to be over and I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t be aware of it, so it would all be over quickly.

Next up is a series of short texts for a longstanding client, a bioethics NGO for whom I translate press releases, newsletters and the like. I used to do more work for this client – extended academic pieces – but they cut back when they realized hardly anybody was reading these and decided, understandably, to direct their budget elsewhere. I often think back to those readerless texts. In their own way they taught me a valuable lesson about the need to appreciate and enjoy the inherent integrity of any translation assignment, the process, a job well done, regardless of feedback, recognition or public acknowledgement.

The middle of the month brings a fun little encounter. It comes to me through my website. A Canadian food writer, Taras Grescoe, is coming to Cadiz, where I live, to do some research on a piece he is writing about garum, the fermented fish sauce that Cadiz exported across the Roman Empire. It is having an unexpected revival as culinary archaeologists seek to recreate it in their labs, drawing on information in Roman cookery books and the remains of amphorae of garum recovered from Pompei, and innovative local chefs incorporate it into their cooking. Taras contacts me to ask if I can put him in touch with a local interpreter for some meetings he has scheduled. It’s short notice so instead I suggest that I accompany him and he can pay me in kind. I’m not an interpreter, I explain, but I’m au fait with the local cuisine and can handle the broadest of local accents. The next day we meet with a local chef whose accent is as thick as they come. I’m relieved to realise that my culinary vocabulary is on point, and I don’t hesitate before explaining that we are about to eat “flying-fish roe marinated in clementine juice”.

In between this assignment and the next one, I undergo some heavy duty dental work: the insertion of a screw that will eventually hold an implant in place. My jaw is swollen and I’m cursing my timing. I’m about to have a tasting menu at the best restaurant in town but I won’t be able to eat a thing. Fortunately, when I arrive, I realize that the tasting menu is also the perfect invalid food. Small servings of local fish (much of it raw), interspersed with fancy foams and mousses. The dinner ends with ice cream delicately flavoured with garum (fermented-fish ice cream, in other words). It is unexpectedly delicious.

Sea urchin roe with samphire

My next project is a wodge of documentation for an invitation to tender for the contract to print biometric ID cards for a government in Central America. This is for a translation agency, the last one I work for. When I started out, agencies like this provided a large part of my income but this has changed as I’ve gradually built up a portfolio of direct clients and pursued my interest in literary translation. My rates have gone up and my availability has gone down, and our ways have slowly parted. This feels good although there is a tinge of sadness. The agency sector feels as if it’s in trouble, crushed by commoditisation, low rates, the misuse of machine translation. It’s true that it has colluded in these developments, of course, but I can’t help wondering if things could have gone differently.

My last project for the month is to finalize my translation of Crocodile Tears, a thriller by Uruguayan writer Mercedes Rosende, which will be published by Bitter Lemon Press in 2021. It’s a great piece of writing and it feels like a real privilege to be asked to translate it. I finished my first draft before Christmas, so I am revising. I try to spread the process out so I can go through several more versions with little rests between each stage, alternating between screen and paper, interspersing other jobs if possible. A lot of translators talk about doing a rough first draft that they would never show to anyone, then making far-reaching changes. I’ve even seen some translators refer to a deliberately hyper-literal first draft which is then improved. That’s not my process. For me, translation is at once both reading and writing and I strive to solve as many problems as I can first time round, chipping away until I’m more or less happy. Occasionally I leave a rough translation as a placeholder, but really this just another way of saying that I haven’t started the translation yet. And, of course, I make lots of changes as I go through versions two, three, four and more. But I don’t really see how either a genuinely rough translation or a hyper-literal one is compatible with the simultaneous attention to source and target that, for me, is the essence of translation. Each to their own, I guess.

One of the interesting things about translating from Spanish into English is that both languages operate in a transatlantic space. But it’s a mistake, I think, to get hung up on simplistic notions of British versus American English, let alone to map these onto European and Latin American Spanish. The reality, thankfully, is far more complex and interesting. Better for translators to view that variety as a resource to draw upon, something we can use to create voice, tone, contrast, rhythm…

Toma un pedazo de papa y lo sumerge en mayonesa, engulle, mira a su espalda, unta dulce de leche en dos dedos, la lengua chasquea, saborea, toma una albóndiga, salsa, devora, arroz, otra albóndiga, más salsa, mayonesa, labios, dientes, el dedo en la mermelada, chupa, sorbe, lengua, dedos, se da prisa y empuja, mira atrás, a la puerta, otro pedazo de pollo que traga casi sin masticar, dulce, puré, algo está mal, se apura, traga más, introduce todos los dedos en la salsa, paladar, lengua, labios, dientes, sorbe, traga, una vez, otra.

She takes a chunk of potato and dips it in the mayonnaise, swallows, looks behind her, smears two fingers with dulce de leche; she smacks her lips, takes a meatball, some sauce, devours it, rice, another meatball, more sauce, mayonnaise, lips, teeth, the finger in the jam, sucking, slurping, tongue, fingers; she’s in a hurry and pushes it down, she looks behind her, at the door; another piece of chicken, which she swallows almost without chewing; something’s wrong, she eats faster, swallows more, plunges all her fingers into the sauce; palate, lips, teeth; slurps, swallows, again and again.

On the last weekend of the month, I travel up to Madrid to see some theatre and meet up with some playwrights. On Friday I catch Jauría. It’s strange to see it being performed on stage in Spanish after I’ve spent so long hearing it in my head in English, but I’m also reassured. I come away with a strong sense that the English play in my head (and on the page) is true to the original version and that the differences are necessary and not a betrayal. On Saturday, I catch Inquilino, written, directed and performed by Paco Gámez, and a play I’m hoping to translate at some point this year. And on Sunday I meet up with a couple more writers and see Mariano Rochman’s Noches de hotel, another play I would like to have translated. (Realistic about the limits on my time and budget, I have instead put the playwright in touch with another translator.) On the train back to Cadiz, I resolve to visit Madrid or Barcelona every couple of months during 2020.

Correspondence (Roberto Osa)

Winner of the City of Malaga Prize 2019, Roberto Osa’s latest play, Correspondencia, is a dark comedy set before and after a funeral in small-town Spain. As the wake progresses, a family’s secrets are gradually revealed.

Everyone rushes to view the deceased. SILENCE.

MARTA:      They’ve done a good job with her.

EUGENIO:    She looks a bit stern.

JUAN:       She always looked a bit stern.

CARLOS:     She doesn’t seem… She doesn’t look… She looks odd.

JUAN:       She looks dead.

MARTA:      I think she looks beautiful. A bit stern, maybe, but beautiful.

CARLOS:     Her mouth is… I don’t know…

JUAN:       Closed?

CARETAKER:  We put a touch of glue on their lips to prevent the evacuation of fluids during the wake.

MARTA:      Glue?

CARETAKER:  Yes, madam. Glue.

JUAN:       It must have been the strong stuff.

CARLOS:     Uncle Juan, please, not now…

Jauría (Jordi Casanovas)

My translation of Jauría, Jordi Casanovas’ play about the Manada case (a gang rape at the Pamplona Bull Running Festival, and subsequent trial, and social and political fallout) opened the Chicago International Voices Project 2020 on 2 September 2020.

The original play, directed by Miguel del Arco and produced by Teatro Kamikaze in Madrid, won the Premio Contra la Violencia de Género 2019, and won the prizes for Best Theatre Adaptation and Best Theatre Show in the Premios Max 2020.

The script is a documentary fiction, composed entirely from fragments of the statements of the victim and the accused.

Tenant (Paco Gámez)

My translation of Paco Gámez’s Inquilino (Premio Calderón de la Barca 2018) was produced by Cervantes Theatre, London, as part of its 2020 season of New Spanish Playwriting. It was directed by Paula Paz, and starred Sebastián Capitán Viveros.

Tenant is the drama of a citizen who is forced to leave his apartment due to a disproportionate rent increase. It is an epic comedy of these times of crisis: the economy will be destiny; the villain, a landlord we don’t know; the hero, a young man raised in abundance who comes of age when the housing bubble explodes.

Spanish genitalia

A couple of weeks ago I did a Twitter thread on how Spaniards (and Gaditanos in particularly) pepper their informal speech with reference to genitals. The thread went viral (over 2 million views when I last checked) so I thought I’d reproduce it here. But do take a look at the original thread, too, as there are lots of entertaining side comments and discussions that aren’t included here.

The other day, I came across the following phrase:

Y encima tú, con todo tu coño…

= And, what’s more, you, with your whole cunt…

Here’s the whole sentence for context:

Y encima tú, con todo tu coño, no contenta con quedar con un desconocido del que sólo sabes que es un rarito que te cagas, vas y le cuentas el plan.

= And, what’s more, you, with your whole cunt, not content to meet a stranger about whom the only thing you know is he’s as weird as hell, you go and tell him the plan.

So, the speaker is expressing frustration with her friend’s naivete:

= And there you are, Jesus Christ! You meet up with some total stranger – the only thing you know about him for sure is that he’s as weird as hell – and you go and tell him the whole plan.

So coño (=cunt) in that phrase is used to emphasize the friend’s naivete.

The general idea is one of inertia, of insisting on being one’s predictable frustrating self, regardless. If the object of your frustration is male, you can replace coño with huevos (balls).

It’s probably worth noting at this stage that coño is actually a fairly mild expletive and can be uttered, for example, to express frustration and is similar to “shit!” or even to “damn!”

Your teenage son has gone out (pre-lockdown) failing to take keys, despite constant reminders. He turns up at 3 in the morning and you get out of bed to let him in. As you open the door, you greet him with a resigned:

¡con tus huevos!

=with your balls

=bloody hell!

Or your mother can’t remember where she parked the car and you spend half an hour searching for it. As you recount events to a friend you might say:

mi madre, con el coño

=my mother, with her cunt

=my mum, she’s so absent-minded

So, there is an element of (more or less) indulgent frustration that comes from the fact that the huevos/coño here represent an essential feature of the person’s character. It may annoy us but it is part of who they are.

And, talking of frustration:

estar hasta los huevos/el coño de algo/alguien

=to be up to one’s balls/cunt with something/someone

=to be completely fed up with something/someone

Or:

deja de tocarme los huevos/el coño

=stop touching my balls/cunt

=stop annoying me

Genitals don’t have to be frustrating. They can be celebratory or affirmatory too. E.g., if someone does something good, asserts themself, takes a big risk etc., you could say:

¡Ole tus huevos/cojones!

Or if speaking to a woman:

¡Ole tu coño!

=Well done!/Go for it!

My favourite instance of this was when a friend of mine was teaching a flamenco workshop in Edinburgh. At one point, she was demonstrating an arm movement.

To explain to the students the spirit in which she wanted them to perform the movement, she said (in a strong Spanish accent):

Like this. For you, for your cunt!

(así, pa’ ti, pa’ tu coño)

Genitals can also be used as a form of address. I live in Cadiz, and it’s fairly standard to address men or boys as pisha (=cock)

It’s roughly equivalent to “mate”, e.g.:

Qué de tiempo, pisha

=I haven’t seen you for ages, mate

“chocho” (=cunt) can also be used as a term of address for women, although I think it’s slightly less neutral, and seems to be used when there’s some impatience, teasing or whatever.

venga, chocho, que nos vamos

=come on, cunt, we’re leaving

=hurry up, we’re leaving

For neutral or affectionate use of chocho, it’s safer to add a dimunitive:

Hola, chochete

=hello, little cunt

=hi

Sticking in Cadiz for a moment, a variant of this is to affectionately address* a small boy as pishita de plata and a small girl as chochete de oro.

= silver cock/golden cunt

*Not a casual greeting between strangers, even in Cadiz, it must be said.

I also have a fondness for a couple of allusive phrases.

Me la suda

Pragmatically, I’d generally translate this as:

I don’t give a damn

But the la in that phrase actually refers to la polla (cock)

= S/he makes my cock sweat 🧐

And finally:

Te la van a meter doblada

Sunset over Cadiz